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Democracies as their own worst enemies
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Democracies as their own worst enemies

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

In watching the events throughout the world over the past few weeks, one is struck by how profoundly challenged democracy has become. In the United States, Great Britain, and even Israel, fundamental democratic values appear to be undermined by the political behavior of elected leaders. All of this is occurring at a time when the West is trying to sell democracy to the world.

Americans watched as Congress conducted its business as if the concept of majority rule were being replaced by the tyranny of the minority or the control of a supermajority. A minority of the House of Representatives (the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party) almost forced the nation into economic default, all in the name of trying to win elections 15 months away. For a political system that has been based since the Constitutional Convention in 1787 on the principles of conflict resolution and compromise, the opportunists’ pledge — before negotiation — that they would not consider any form of revenue increases hardly seems to reflect a sense of negotiation. We witnessed a faction of one of the major parties intimidate their own side’s presumably more reasonable leaders.

The Senate, meanwhile, already has an obstructionist filibuster procedure in their rules. A vote by only 40 of the 100 members (again, a minority) of the Senate can block action in the upper chamber.

As if this were not troubling enough for democratic rule, the latest Republican to announce his intention to seek his party’s nomination for president, Texas governor Rick Perry, appears to be ready to add his religious beliefs directly into the mix of his campaign. Not since Congress had to deal with proposed constitutional amendments mandating prayer in public schools has separation of church and state been so threatened.

Great Britain’s democracy has been undermined in two different and distinct ways. Over the past two weeks the bedrock of European democracy has been attacked by assaults on and reprisals from the law enforcement systems. Domestic riots, largely instigated by lower-class ethnic immigrants, have caused extensive damage to life and property in all of England’s major cities. Britain’s leaders have fallen back on anti-immigrant, racist attitudes, which have always been prevalent in English society, rather than address the serious underlying economic and social problems the country faces. The riots also led to serious questioning of the effectiveness and reliability of the constabulary forces.

Telephone hacking by the Murdoch-owned — now defunct — News of the World also suggested a callous abandonment of democratic values. That journalists could descend to such gross violations of individual rights and liberties — and that law enforcement and government officials could look on with a wink and a nod — challenges one of the most integral premises of a democratic society.

Police in Great Britain may be well trained but they are underpaid, understaffed, and overwhelmed, sometimes addressing contemporary problems with 19th-century techniques. British police still largely operate with no more dangerous a weapon than a rubber truncheon, while they are entrusted to fight modern-day street hooligans. Maintaining law and order still requires a need to protect the citizens’ right to protest and to demonstrate, but not when an uncontrolled mob destroys property and intimidates other citizens. British democracy will depend on getting the balance of law enforcement, civil liberties, and addressing the underlying social challenges just right.

In Israel, social unrest has spread throughout the country as the nation finally acknowledges the extent of its economic and social disparities. The social safety net, once the pride of Israel’s democratic system, is now challenged by a handful of ultra-rich families who have the government’s ear and apparently little social conscience.

If the Netanyahu government does not begin to address seriously the outcry from the young people in the tent cities, there could be a breakdown in civil society in Israel. It is not the socialist ideology of the state’s founders that the protesters are demanding. They want their democratically elected rulers to provide adequate services and support equity for all and not to placate their haredi and irredentist political supporters at the expense of the nation as a whole.

We are in a mighty tough environment in which to tell the world it needs democracy.

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